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Preventing and Finding Cervical Cancer

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month and is a time to shed light on this preventable but still deadly cancer. Cervical cancer is found in the uterine cervix and occurs in almost 13,000 women each year in the United States.

1. Are there causes for cervical cancer?
The majority of the time, cervical cancer is caused by long term infection from the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. People can be infected with HPV by skin to skin contact or through sexual intercourse. There are lots of different types of HPV, with only a few linked to cancer.

2. What are its symptoms?
In the early stages of cervical cancer, there are usually no symptoms, which is why it is essential to get your Pap smear regularly. If the cancer becomes more advanced, symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, bleeding after menopause or sex, longer heavier menstrual periods, abnormal vaginal discharge, and pain during sexual intercourse.

3. What can be done to prevent this cancer?
Getting your HPV vaccination is a great way to prevent being infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend all children aged 11-12 receive the two-dose vaccine. The second dose is administered six months to one year after the first. If you are older, you may need a third dose. They do not recommend it for anyone older than 26 as more people have already been exposed to HPV and vaccination after this time is less effective.  

4. How is cervical cancer found?
Gynecologic exams visualize the cervix and perform a Pap smear. The Pap smear screening tests look for cell changes in the cervix that could become signs of cancer or pre-cancer. It is recommended that women start getting Pap smears when they are 21 and, if normal, repeat them every three years.

5. Is the treatment process any different from other cancer types?
Cervical cancer treatment can require combinations of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, just like other cancer types. But it can also be treated with targeted therapy, which uses medications and other substances to kill the specific cancer cells but not the healthy cells and immunotherapy, which uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. What stage your cancer is in and what type of cervical cancer you have will determine the specifics of your treatment process.

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